Teresa Vaughn looked up from the softcover
novel and glanced down at eight-month-old Mikka, pleased with the baby’s contented play. Her attention soon wavered
back to the tragic story, so real and yet so insubstantial, like the bubble dissolving on the surface of her spearmint tea.
A few pages later, the
silent room jarred the fortyish mother from her book. Mikka was absent from her usual place beside the basket of toys on the
braided rug. Tess’s chest contracted. She gazed around the kitchen and jumped up from the ladderback chair, spilling
the cobalt-glazed mug in a clanging tumble from tabletop to rug to hardwood floor. It spun and inched to a stop against the
love-worn plush lion that Mikka was teething on.
“Mikka? Mikka!” She didn’t go . . . did she?
Tess’s voice grew
louder each time she called the baby’s name. She rattled the kitchen door knob. Securely locked. She dashed from the
kitchen and sprinted in circles throughout the lower level of her hand-built house, a log and stone cottage adrift on a high
desert prairie. In the spacious living room and office area, she rummaged behind furniture and piles of colorful floor cushions,
flipping light switches and snapping lamps on, one with so much psychic force that the bulb burned out.
Tess screwed her face
up in thought as she trotted up the carpeted pine stairwell to the second story. Mikka liked to crawl upstairs, though she’d
never gone all the way to the second floor before. She began to repeat her search as if second nature. Mikka was absent from
the modest master bedroom at the top of the stairs. With a little prayer, she pictured the baby safe in her room at the end
of the hall.
No joy. Some old-fashioned
wooden toys lay scattered below bright storage modules bursting with toys and picture books. Standing for a moment over Mikka’s
empty crib, Tess balled her hand into a fist and pressed it over her heart. An instant later, she took a step backward, turned
abruptly, and strode from Mikka’s room.
Tess called a hundredth time, her voice vibrating with the rhythm of her footsteps.
She turned and jogged
down the short hallway, her long hair swinging across her back. Pushing a half-closed door open with a thud, she peered inside
at an empty clawfoot bathtub illuminated by the hallway light. Her cheeks rounded with a relieved sigh as she inhaled the
lingering lilac scent of Mikka’s evening bubble bath.
Tess retraced her steps
down the hall and stairway and called again, her voice rising. “Mikka!”
She paused at the massive
front door and flipped another light switch, arching her back and flexing a trim bicep to unfasten bolt and security chain.
She burst through the door with another loud thud, the brass hinges squawking. Her eyes darted again around the screened porch
that wrapped around the front of the house, and underneath the weathered wicker chaise lounge, rocker, and side table.
When a happy squeal pealed
from outside, Tess held her breath and kicked the screen door open. Her baby
sat in a flowerbed, one chubby fist partially crammed into her mouth, the other hand extended toward Tess. A large Luna moth
fluttered from the shadows and lit upon the tip of Mikka’s tiny forefinger.
Tess marveled at the
sight until the moth spiraled into the darkness. She scooped Mikka into her arms and held her close, a tight smile softening
her frazzled expression. She kissed the baby’s cheeks, bounced her, and smoothed her yellow and pink flowered dress
in little nervous pats.
“How did you get
out of the house? The doors were locked!”
baby repeated. “Pre-pre.”
pretty moth. Pret-ty mo-th.” Tess lowered her face level with Mikka’s and elongated the syllables.
“Pree ma. Pree
pree ma,” the baby chortled again, her auburn curls and golden skin glowing under the yellow porch light.
Relieved, Tess placed
her forehead against Mikka’s and they each grinned at the one-eyed, cyclops view of the other.
“How do you leave
one place and end up in another, Meekers? You can’t even walk yet. This is the third time . . . you scared the daylights
out of me again.”
Mikka wiggled with delight,
crowing a happy squeal that rose to the stars. She suddenly straightened her back and turned a sober face toward the ranch
gate at the driveway’s end, fastened with chain and padlock to a stout post.
Tess followed Mikka’s
gaze, her heart dropping, but she saw no more than a shadow cast across the frosty ground, a play of light cast by clouds
crossing the moon.